Genre and Auteur Theory

These are two different approaches to the analysis of film, often seen to be directly contradictory.


In the 1950s, the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema instigated a new way of 'reading' movies - what later came to be called 'auteur' theory. The basic principle was that the film was a work of art; just like a novel or painting, it was essentially the product of an individual's imagination. Thus, a Truffaut movie (Truffaut was a prime mover of this school of thought) is the way it is because that's how Truffaut, the director, wanted it to be. He's the author (the 'auteur') - the movie is his work. One writer, Alexandre Astruci, started to talk of the camera as a camera-stylo (a 'light-pen') - that is, the tool with which the auteur gave shape to his ideas.

This theory tells us to treat the film as a work of art. As such, every frame, every mise-en-scene, is regarded as the deliberately composed result of a series of artistic decisions made by the auteur (usually, but not always, the director.) When you talk about Citizen Kane as Orson Welles' own story, for example, you're influenced by auteur theory - that is, the key to understanding the film is understanding Welles.

Auteur theory was very much designed as an attack on the big, commercial productions common in post-war France. The Nazi occupation during the second world war had meant that American movies were banned in France; after the liberation, these movies flooded in and subsequently influenced French cinema, making it bigger, more commercial and, in the eyes of Truffaut and others, less viable as an artform.

The backlash to this way of thinking started in the 1960s. First, check these condensed notes on the work of Andrew Sarris, the American film critic from 1962:

There are a number of problems with auteur theory:

  • A film is not a novel. It is not created by an individual; it is collaborative.
  • Auteur theory tended to praise the director at the expense of everyone else. For many films, other individuals play massive parts in achieving success.
  • More practically, assuming that a director can 'make or break' a movie is not a very commercially successful way to proceed. Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate is the most famous example. Fresh from the critical and commercial success of The Deerhunter, Cimino was given free rein by his studio (United Artists) on his next project. The result was so massive, so late and so over-budget, that it very nearly put the studio out of business and radically changed the way Hollywood thought about making films.
Is WOODY ALLEN an AUTEUR? (Sense of Cinema resource)


The SUPERHERO AUTEUR THEORY (Makes links to Truffaut & Sarris)




Genre theory became the norm. This states, basically, that there are many things which shape movies, and the director's 'vision' is only one of them. Specifically, genre conventions dictate characterisation, aesthetic, narrative and so on. So, are John Ford's westerns most affected by Ford or by the Western genre? To what extent is he free to subvert or ignore the conventions? Studios, by the way, really like genre movies - they're predictable and (relatively) safe.

As Robert Stam has pointed out, however, there are also problems with using Genre as a theoretical base:

'While some genres are based on story content (the war film), others are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical.) Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters) while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), location (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer cinema.)'

Genres, he goes on to mention, are often simple products of the studio system:

'Early filmmakers learned to rely on generic patterns in order to standardise production procedures, to reinforce audience expectations, and to create institutional identities for the very corporations themselves. Examples: MGM and the Musical, Ealing and Comedy, Hammer Films and Horror, Gainsborough and Melodrama.'

As such, genre can often appear to be an old-fashioned or entirely artificial frameowrk. It seems obvious, however, that many, if not most, movies still follow generic conventions to a greater or lesser degree.



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